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Student wages

Warning! This musing rambles. It mostly serves as my attempt to think through some issues on campus.

I’ve been thinking a lot about student wages recently, spurred on by a variety of issues. For those not at Grinnell, I suppose I should give a bit of background. Grinnell has traditionally had three classifications of student jobs, aptly named Category I, Category II, and Category III. Category I jobs [perform] routine, non-complex work [1]. Category II jobs require previous experience and/or necessitate acquiring a skill(s) [sic] to maintain the position [2]. Category III jobs are reserved for Dining Services, Annual Giving Specialist supervisors, Admission Fellows, Peer Mentors/Tutors, and ITS Technology Consultant Coordinators [3]. We currently pay $7.75 per hour for Category I jobs, $8.50 for Category II, and $9.10 for Category III. In spring 2016 (I think), our dining services students unionized, and arranged for a higher pay rate [4]. I hear different things about those rates. The student employment page says that Dining Services employees are Category II ($9.25 per hour) or Category III ($10.00 per hour). But I’ve heard something about raises and bonuses, too [5]. In spring 2016 (I think), the College also decided to pay lifeguards $12.00 per hour because they have particularly demanding training (bi-annual certification, if I am not mistaken) and expectations [6]. There have also been other changes afoot. For example, members of the Scarlet and Black have moved from a stipend model to an hourly model.

That’s the primary background. What inspired me to write about student wages? A few things. I have a few relatively new faculty in my department. One of the first things they asked was Why do we pay our students so little? I made $12/hour as a student programmer eight years ago [7,8]. I regularly argue with the administration about the pay for our summer students [10], which seems to be based on Category II wages [11]. Our summer students make less than students in REUs. When I complain to the administration about it, they say But they get Grinnell credit! I’d like to do a study: If we offered our summer students a choice between $500 additional stipend or the four credits, how many would take the additional stipend [12]?

But the issue that most inspired me to muse on wages was a conversation I’ve had with a few different students. I encourage them to apply to serve as peer educators in our department. They reply, I’d like to, but I need the extra money I earn in Dining Services. That response really bothers me. As an educational institution, we should not have an incentive structure that discourages students from doing things that provide better intellectual benefit. What’s the difference in pay? Let’s see … if I believe my students, rather than the Web site, they can make $2.00 more per hour. These students are often working twenty hours per week (our maximum), so that’s $40 per week or about $560 per semester. Yeah, I can see making that decision, particularly since they have a fairly stable number of hours. What’s the difference if they only give up six hours per week to be a mentor and the Web site is right that the difference is $1.00/hour? That’s only $6.00 per week for fourteen weeks, or $84.00. A smaller amount, but still enough to buy a textbook [14]. I can still see making that decision.

But the decision still bothers me. I’d like to see us incentivize things that make more of a positive difference in students’ lives [15]. I understand that Dining Services provides many positive experiences. However, serving as a peer educator helps students develop communication and leadership skills, deepens their knowledge of a discipline, and helps their fellow students [16]. It also looks much better on a résumé.

How do wages get set outside of academia? An economist would probably tell me that there are issues of supply and demand. High-skill jobs provide higher wages because there is a much smaller group of people who have the necessary skills to perform those jobs. But that’s clearly not the only factor in supply and demand: Before the new Dining Services pay rate was instituted, I know that they had trouble filling all the open slots; they no longer seem to have that difficulty. So, even if there’s a large supply of potential workers, there’s a necessary level of incentive to entice those potential workers.

But Grinnell is not an unrestricted market. We have many, many restrictions. Federal guidelines stipulate that our international students cannot work off campus [17] or more than twenty hours per week. College guidelines stipulate that our domestic students also cannot work more than twenty hours per week. Unlike our international students, our domestic students can work off campus [18]. Grinnell is also a small town with a limited supply of workers and, for most of the positions on campus for which students are eligible, we can only employ students.

Of course, I’m not sure that an economic model is the correct one. We should also consider ethical issues in determining pay rates. Just as we would hope that a living wage is appropriate for the world outside the bubble, our on-campus wages should be enough to allow students to pay their costs at Grinnell, eat, and have a reasonable social life [19,20]. I’m also not sure that it’s fair that students with fewer resources have to work more and to make their decisions based on pay rather than on the quality of the experience. I believe that’s one of the arguments that was made when the S&B transitioned its pay metric. At the same time, life isn’t always fair. There are also many unpaid but important student roles on campus, such as leading student clubs and serving on SEPCs [21].

So, where does that leave us? I think we should be paying our students more. I can see an argument for paying every student the same wage for every job. Students could then choose based on interest. If the hourly wage was sufficient, I don’t think we’d have problems with Dining Services being under-staffed. But one wage for all seems insufficient. Just like our staff, our students deserve regular raises if they do well. So, let’s try this model: Every job on campus starts at $9.50 per hour. Each semester you work at that job or a closely related one, you get another $0.25 per hour. We won’t pay supervisors more, because they will have the raises from experience (and will realize that having a supervisory role on their résumé will be worth more than a slight change in wages).

How much will this cost? Let’s do a back-of-the-envelope calculation, mostly because I don’t know any of the real numbers. We have about 1,500 students on campus at any one time [22]. Let’s assume that each works ten hours per week [23]. There are fourteen weeks in a semester. I’ll estimate that this costs us about $2.00 more per hour. What’s the total cost? About $420,000 per semester or probably about $1 million per year. Yeah, that’s a significant chunk of change. I should probably do another back-of-the-envelope calculation. Our FY17 budget is $125 million [24]. 2% of that is for student wages [25]. I’m suggesting about a 25% raise in student wages. That calculation suggests that we would pay about $630,000 more per year under this model. I wonder what we could cut to pay for that?

In any case, I’d like to see a broader discussion of these issues on campus and I’d like to see our students be able to choose at least some of their work based on interest and intangible benefits, rather than only on remuneration.

Late-breaking news! A student shared the current contract with me. It can be found at Article IV is about wages. Normal workers get $9.25 per hour. Student leaders get $10.00 per hour. The College site was right. However, there’s also a bonus for any student employee who (a) works 110 hours or more in a single semester; and (b) works at least two shifts during the final week of that semester. Those students earn a bonus of $0.25 per hour worked, $0.50 per hour worked, or $0.75 per hour worked, depending on their experience. So the high-end salary is $10.75 per hour. That’s $1.65 more per hour than our peer educators make. I could adjust my numbers down, but I’m too lazy to do so.

I wonder if we can also pay bonuses to our peer educators, assuming that we haven’t completely overspent that budget. Time to ask!




[4] They were not able to get the union rates to apply to high-school students.

[5] I can’t find details anywhere on the College’s Web site. Yay transparency!

[6] After all, they are responsible for people’s lives.

[7] Both the salary and the time period are approximate.

[8] I’ve had a variant of that conversation with my Dean. Mine goes In 1993, as a visitor at Dartmouth teaching one course, I made the same amount as the top amount we pay for a single course now. [9]

[9] No, that doesn’t usually convince my dean to pay me more for an overload, or others more for a single course. I hear we are sometimes even stingy about faculty whose contract specifies a particular percent of base salary per course overload.

[10] In case you were wondering, I keep arguing for more money for our summer students.

[11] Even though summer research requires significant background, it does not get the top scale. Why? I’m guessing that it’s because it’s not a supervisory role. But I don’t set the amounts and I’d probably cost the college tens of thousands of dollars if I did.

[12] I would guess that most would take the additional stipend.

[14] Or at least some textbooks. It would certainly cover a new copy of CLRS and probably a used edition of Sipser.

[15] I will eventually write an essay about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. I guess that my concern right now is not that we aren’t giving extrinsic motivation for something that they should be intrinsically motivated to do; it’s that we are giving students strong extrinsic motivation for something that is not necessarily in their best interest.

[16] I’ll also admit that serving in Dining Services also helps their fellow students who need to be fed.

[17] So, unlike Ed Senn ’79, they can’t [pick] up some extra cash moonlighting as a dishwasher when needed.

[18] I have asked multiple CS majors why they work as waiters. They tell me that they make significantly more from tips than they would make for any on-campus job.

[19] I appreciate that most events on campus are free. But it’s still valuable to be able to have some spending money if you want to leave campus or contribute to an event on campus.

[20] I know that some of our students also have to send some money home to support their family. I’m not sure what to do about that issue.

[21] SEPC stands for Student Educational Policy Committee. Our SEPCs review faculty members, provide an additional bridge between the students and faculty in a department, and take some responsibility for the social life of the department.

[22] I think we have between 1,650 and 1,700 students, but some are studying abroad each semester.

[23] I have no idea whether or not that’s a realistic number. I know that there are a lot of students who work twenty hours per week. But there are also some who work nothing, or very few hours per week.

[24] My source is the slides that Kate Walker provided at a recent faculty meeting.

[25] There’s clearly rounding involved.

Version 1.0 of 2017-04-24.